Caught Live: The North Sea Scrolls - An Evening of Revelations with Luke Haines, Cathal Coughlan, Andrew Mueller & Audrey Riley @ The Sugar Club, Dublin
As the tagline of Guy Maddin's 2007 'docu-fantasia' masterpiece, My Winnepeg, proclaims: "The truth is relative". This is the message being broadcast this evening by Luke Haines – former lynchpin of both The Auteurs and Black Box Recorder, and perennial misfit of British (anti-)pop – in unison with much-loved Dubliner Cathal Coughlan, the driving force behind oft-missed local heroes Microdisney and The Fatima Mansions. Having been introduced to one another by journalist Andrew Mueller, the pair decided recently to form "a modern rock combo", taking their thematic cue from a mythical collection of holy manuscripts known as The North Sea Scrolls.
Upon arriving at Leeson Street's thronged Sugar Club, we are greeted by a startling image looming from the screen at the back of the venue's stage: it's a picture of one Jimmy Saville (recently deceased, of course), as well as former boxer Frank Bruno and a shell suit-wearing Peter Sutcliffe (aka The Yorkshire Ripper). The latter two are shaking hands in what must surely rank as one of the oddest pictures you're ever likely to see. As we rub our eyes in confusion, the potential meanings behind the image start to get under our skin, and what first appeared innocuous slowly takes on a more sinister tone. As we discover across the course of tonight's gig, this exposing of the mundane as the downright strange and unsettling is the very essence of The North Sea Scrolls.
The show was originally written for and performed at last summer's Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Having drawn rapturous responses from audiences and critics alike, it was then decided that TNSS should be brought out on the road proper; fast-forward a few months, and this Sugar Club performance follows a similarly 'revelatory' outing at Cork's Triskel Arts Centre the previous night.
The whole set effectively works as one complete piece, with overlapping themes building from one song to the next before it all unfurls rapturously at the end in one big sonic hug. As for the songs themselves... Well, quite a lot has been crammed into the fourteen bruisers that constitute the bricks and mortar of the show. Pop culture clashes semi-chaotically with the past throughout to tell us how things actually were. No, really.
From 'Broadmoor Blues Delta' to 'Mr Cynthia', it soon becomes clear that this is a history not created by the fevered minds of conspiracy theorists, but rather one that laughs in their faces. Heck, if you're going to rewrite history, then why not have some fun doing it - right?
The aforementioned 'Broadmoor...', sung by Haines (the pair alternate vocal duties all night), tells of how, having been certified cracked at the infamous psychiatric hospital, failed kidnapper Ian Ball was subsequently approached by none other than Beelzebub himself. This blinged Northern Lucifer (Jimmy Saville R.I.P.) somehow managed to 'fix it' for Ball to trade places with his namesake in the indie band Gomez. The song's refrain of "Gomez, Gomez..." draws a wryly satisfied laugh from the attentive audience.
Coughlan's 'Mr Cynthia', meanwhile, apparently alludes to how Sir Oswald Mosley ruled Britain during the '60s, and recounts how his Minister of Culture, Sir Joseph Meek, placed John Lennon under house arrest for fear that the star's progressive views on politics and the world in general could have a damaging influence on Britain's impressionable yougsters. In the absense of our cultural hero, it was his first wife Cynthia who went on to become a celebrated modern thinker.
These are the mere beginnings of the twisted and often hilarious tales that have been set loose by The Scrolls. The song 'My Mother, My Dead Mother' is seemingly about the last Royal Wedding - only, in this barbed version of history, William is in fact marrying his own dead mother, Diana. History101 this ain't.
There's even a mention tonight for the master of Irish conspiracy theories himself, Jim Corr (guitarist in The Corrs), and it's quite apt that this dwarf of the mind should be shown up here. Joining paranoia king Jim are the crime king Martin Cahill and even the prog-metal band Hawkwind, who are seen at one point transporting The Scrolls from Ladbroke Grove to Norfolk in a hot air balloon.
Each number receives its own spoken-word intro from Mueller, a device that not only proves laugh-out-loud funny on several occasions, but also serves as an interesting way of informing first-time listeners about the ribald subject matter on display.
Musically speaking, the songs are unmistakeably the work of the two main performers, but this union has upped the playfulness quotient considerably. As with much of his recent solo output, some of Haines' work here could (almost) pass for stand-up comedy.
Other highlights include 'The Angel of The North' and a song that could/should be called 'I'm Falconetti', concerning as it does the death of popular radio DJ Chris Evans. The ubiquitous jock actually gets burned at the stake, his dying vision being that he has somehow come to inhabit the body of iconic actress Maria Falconetti (from Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc). Perhaps surprisingly, in this version of living Evans is depicted as being a fairly wise figure... Perish the thought!
The performances given this evening are universally excellent, with pathos-ridden cello accompaniment coming from Audrey Riley. A rousing singalong brings the North Sea Scrolls experience to a close, with lyrics projected onto the screen behind the band. We're then treated to a Coughlan classic in the shape of 'Singer's Hampstead Home' (from his Microdisney days) as well as an equally wonderful brace of Haines' own making: the inimitable 'Leeds United' along with 'Georgous George', a typically madcap missive from his latest LP, 9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of The 1970s & Early '80s.
Given the conspiracy-soaked post 9/11 climate we now live under, where rain cannot fall without The Mossad's hand being seen behind it, tonight serves as a timely reminder that, if anything, what most of these New World Order theories lack is a dose of imagination. Jim Corr could do worse than ask Messrs. Haines and Coughlan for advice the next time he wants to get on the telly. The North Sea Scrolls certainly beats a night with the Corrs hands down.